Thoughts on Firefox 3 and Opera 9.5

Opera 9.5 is out, Firefox 3 too (more or less), so, which browser are you going to use today?
This new generatio of browsers offers plenty of new, innovative features and improvements over the past, in both cases:

  • You can finally use Firefox because it finally doesn’t eat up all your RAM
  • You can finally use Opera because it is finally “understand” ajaxified web sites like Gmail

Amazingly, these two releases have a lot in common…

A fresh new look

Both browsers needed a new look, let’s be honest. Both didn’t really care that much in the past releases, but suddenly things changed: the new Opera theme, Sharp, looks truly awesome on any platform, and the Mozilla development team came up with FOUR different themes, aiming to camouflage Firefox as a native application for all the major OSes.

Personally, while I was really impressed by the new Opera theme, I was not too sure of the new direction taken for Firefox UI. Why a different theme for each different major operating system? In particular the XP theme could have been better, in my opinion.
Not a huge deal though, as both browsers are skinnable (although I’m not gonna alter the way Opera looks!).

The speed of light

My main complaint about Firefox 2 was its slow startup and generally slowness due to several memory leaks. This eventually led me to “switch to Opera” for my daily browsing a while ago.

Firefox 3, luckily, is much faster and more memory-efficient than its predecessor, as the development team squashed most of the memory-related bugs. The introduction of jemalloc as the new memory allocator and also the new cycle collectory improved things quite a bit.

Opera 9.5 still “feels” faster at startup and also the GUI is a bit more snappy than Firefox’s, but Firefox 3 is terribly fast at interpreting Javascript.
As a result, sites like Gmail or Google Reader are rendered almost instantaneously in Firefox 3, while Opera 9.5 is slightly slower.

Address Bar 2.0

Both browser struggled to add more features to the Address Bar: Opera now supports search-as-you-type history search and Firefox… well, let’s just say that Firefox Developers built something truly wonderful with the new “AwesomeBar”: it is now possible to search history items tagged pages and bookmarks.

But there’s more: you’ll notice that the AwesomeBar does an outstanding job in retrieving results ordered by relevance, frequency and access time, and it also allows the user to restrict search to specific page types.

As an Opera user, I must admit that Firefox is really way ahead with this. Unfortunately, Opera toolbar still is not that smart.

Sync’ing up

Opera offers the ability to sync your bookmarks, notes, custom toolbars and Quick Dial pages via the new Link service.
It looks awfully similar to Mozilla Weave, an experimental extension aiming to synchronize the whole Firefox profile.

Currently, Weave allows users to sync bookmarks, history and passwords in a very secure way: this truly preserve the “state” of your browser across multiple computers.

On the other hand, Opera is virtually on any device or platform, so Link can be handy if you use Opera as your mobile browser. Unfortunately, we’ll still have to wait a bit for a proper Mozilla competitor for mobile device, but it already looks very promising.

Be nice, be open

Firefox is THE (only?) open source browser. Opera has always been (and always will be?) a proprietary, freeware, closed source app.
Some people are really bothered by this, especially Linux users of course: it really comes down to how religious you are about the software running on your machine.

Being open source, Firefox is more hacker-friendly: this release, especially, also delivers an awful lot of useful APIs which can be used to develop extensions in a much easier way. This of course isn’t an option for Opera.

From a different point of view, Opera actually implements more ‘next generation’ open standards than Firefox, and it scores more than Firefox in the Acid 3 test.

Does this matter in the end? Well, yes and no: it’s nice that Opera struggles to be way ahead than others in this, but in the end, until Firefox 3 (and Internet Explorer too!) catch up, web developers won’t dare using any of the new features.

Do you have a web site optimized for Opera? No, probably not: you’re normally aiming at Firefox or IE (sigh!) when it comes to development, because they are still more widely used.

All this is very sad, but still terribly true. But at least, other browsers will feel more compelled to catch up.

Usability is the key

Personally, I prefer Opera’s philosophy of “everything in tabs” rather than having many dialog boxes floating around for downloads, history, bookmarks etc.

From this point of view, Firefox is arguably not as usable as Opera. Before Firefox GUI purists start screaming insults, I repeat that this is entirely up to your taste.

While Opera’s GUI didn’t undergo any major change, Firefox 3 definitely did:

  • A new Library now holds all your bookmarks, history and feeds
  • The new Downloads dialog supports (finally!) download resumes, even across different browsing sessions
  • It is very easy to access information on web site, especially with the new identity button (that’s where the web site favicon is displayed).

Another trend introduced by Firefox 3 is the ability to search-as-you-type in all these dialogs and in many others (like the Cookie Manager). This makes finding information much easier.

Opera didn’t need any major overhaul, but I would have liked to have cookies and preference in tabs, too (they are pretty much the only dialog boxes left).

To extend or not extend?

This is always the eternal dilemma when it comes to Firefox vs. other browsers.

The major strength of Firefox 3, like all its predecessors, lies in the hundreds of free extensions which can be installed by user to enhance browser’s functionality. You can turn Firefox into almost anything you like.

Because I’m trying to be browser-independent, I like to keep my Firefox extensions to a bare minimum:

  • Weave
  • Operator
  • Web Developer
  • Firebug
  • StumbleUpon
  • ColorZilla
  • Secure Login

Opera fans always boost that Opera can do pretty much everything you’d ever need out of the box, so you don’t need any extension at all. Part of this is true (does Firefox have an e-mail client? No. Does Firefox offer a Wand out-of-the-box? No., …read this for the details)

In the past release, Opera added widget to let developers unleash their creativity. And I must admit that they are quite cute and work well enough (a few of them at least).

One of the most frequently-missed feature was a Firebug equivalent for Opera. Luckily, this was fixed in this release with the introduction of DragonFly, which is already bundled with the browser itself.
I’m pretty sure this will make a lot of web developers very happy.

Personally, I still miss an equivalent of the extension in Opera, but I guess I can survive with just a bookmarklet, if needed.

Choose your winner

It is really up to you. I don’t have a true favorite as for now: Firefox 3 is very, very tempting because of three things:

  • The AwesomeBar: I feel I’m already becoming addicted to it
  • Some of its extensions, including Weave
  • The performance improvements, especially concerning memory management and the rendering of pages making extensive use of Javascript

Opera, on the other hand, charmes me for what it can do out-of-the-box: it’s fast, sleek, has almost everything I need with no configuration at all. It’s ideal if you use multiple systems, including mobile devices.

Definitely I will not abandon any of the two as for now: I’ll probaly use Firefox for a more enhanced browsing experience, but I’ll definitely use Opera when I’m in a hurry to look something up for example, and every time my fiancĂ©e is using Firefox on the same account.

There’s no absolute winner in the Browser Wars yet: just different browsers for different occasions!